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Friday, 30 January 2009

30 January 2009

Do you believe we could ever live in a world with no nuclear weapons? Do you think it would be a better place, or a more insecure place? Did nukes save us from a Third World War during the Cold War of 1945-1989, or did they take us to the brink of Armageddon?

The reason I ask is that there is a growing movement – with some very eminent supporters – arguing that now is the time for governments to start moving seriously towards the total elimination of all nuclear weapons.

Idealistic nonsense, you say? From the likes of George Shultz and Henry Kissinger? Mikhail Gorbachov? Robert McNamara? David Owen?

Something is stirring in the world of nuclear non-proliferation, which is why we devoted a large chunk of last night’s programme to it. (If you missed it, you’ll find it in the usual place: Listen Again on the website. http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/news/worldtonight/ And my apologies, by the way, for the technical problems earlier in the week, which prevented us from updating the site.)

George Shultz’s line boils down to this: nuclear deterrence was all very well when it was about just America and the Soviet Union – but now that there are so many more nuclear powers (I make it eight at the last count: the US, Russia, China, France and Britain, plus India, Pakistan and Israel), deterrence becomes a hugely risky option.

The former chief of the UK Defence Staff, Lord Bramall, wrote in a letter to The Times recently: “Nuclear weapons have shown themselves to be completely useless as a deterrent to the threats and scale of violence we currently, or are likely to, face — particularly international terrorism; and the more you analyse them the more unusable they appear.”

Consider this: the attacks of September 11, 2001, the attacks in London in July 2005, in Mumbai in November – all took place in countries with a nuclear weapons capability. So who exactly was deterred by the fear of a retaliatory nuclear strike?

I put that argument to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. Ah, he said, you’re right, nuclear weapons don’t deter terrorists, but they may well deter future potential enemies 20 or 30 years into the future. And until everyone gives up their nuclear weapons, Britain will retain its own capability.

As for the argument that Britain could set a good example by going it alone on nuclear disarmament: “fanciful,” says Mr Miliband. Does anyone seriously think that Iran, for example, would give up its own nuclear programme (it denies, of course, that it is developing nuclear weapons) just because the UK decided not to renew Trident?

There is a serious debate to be had. A growing number of policy makers seem to be convinced that it should be possible to turn back the tide of nuclear proliferation if the existing nuclear powers do more to reduce, and eventually eliminate, their own arsenals.

Here’s what the White House says about the Obama administration’s policy objectives: “(We) will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the US-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global.”

All of which sounds pretty ambitious. But can aspiration be converted into achievement? To be honest, I have no idea, but it’s going to be interesting to watch over the coming months as Washington and Moscow size up each other’s true intentions.

Just this week, the word from Moscow was that it may now suspend its plans to place a missile system in Kaliningrad, close to the border with Poland. Was it a goodwill gesture to President Obama, or an attempt to drive a wedge between him and Washington’s allies in what used to be the Soviet backyard?

We do live in interesting times.

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